Diary: Never Been Half-Lifed, Part Two

Xen is totally rubbish you were all right YOU WERE ALL RIGHT
Readers. I crawled to the end. You warned me. After part one of the diary, you really did warn me.

At the beginning, I thought Half-Life was the best game I’d ever played. There were so many finely crafted moments; so many things I learned. I avoided reading the slightest thing on it. I wanted it unsullied. As time went on in Half-Life, I gradually realised that each level is a discrete little chocolate box of incidents, scripted events, little puzzles and touches. There is so much attention to detail in the way that everything is centred on the player’s experience, how to psyche you out, how to spook you, how to mess with you. And then, as each new level drags on, you begin to wonder what it is you’re aiming for. By the time you reach Xen, you’re done. By the time you get to gonad beast, you’re completely, oh so really, done. But wasn’t it something? But wasn’t it really something?

Half-Life is an abusive theme park. Spielberg’s admitted that Indiana Jones was heavily influenced by theme park rides, and I feel the same way about Half-Life. It’s just a ride that you love and hate. The sheer craft that is present in it – there’s such an awareness of psychology – how to play with the player. Level designers and theme park designers must have this in common – a sense of how space and audio can manipulate our minds into behaving in a certain way.

In order to demonstrate how acutely the level designers in Half-Life were attuned to the player, I’ve gone done a video of my favourite part, in the chapter Apprehension:

It filled me with dread the first time I went into that room. Not only is that the first time you see a horrible sharkbeast, but, y’know, it ate someone in front of you. Not only that – but the audio is perfectly designed to make you feel sick with horror. There are many layers to it: first, the cry of the scientist being chomped. Which, admittedly, is always meant to be comical in this game. But the noise of the Ichthyosaur when you are outside of the water (I found that this is its preferred name, perhaps it gets snooty if you call it sharkydude) is this dread-laden moan, a terrible sigh of ‘I’m going to maul you’. It puts the willies up you even now. You know you don’t want to be anywhere near the water.

But there are layers still in the audio design. The soundtrack presses down on you like a hot blanket to smother your calm, and then there’s the dripping. Always, the dripping. And the echoes. Somehow, you know you’re going to face it. But you ignore it. But then you’ve climbed the ladder and the scientist is there, indicating, irritatingly, at your doom. Well, there’s a switch down there, isn’t there, you reason. Of course I have to go down there.

And the scientist looked towards this small opening in the wall. You follow his gaze – a technique actors use to have their audience put their attention towards the action – and you realise the next place you are going is along that tiny pole. You inch along it, fully aware that Half-Life’s slippy floors could do you over pretty neatly, and then you see it. There’s a crossbow down there. It’s obviously for sharkthings. Oh god. You have to drop into the cage.

Eventually, it was the curiosity that got me. And the greed. They know that’s how we work. They know we want the crossbow. They know we want to know what happens if we try to get it. They know people who play games LOVE. TRINKETS. And especially, we love to collect guns and weapons. My friend Alice informed me, “This is the era in which you measure how far along in a game you are by how many guns you have.” And she was right. And I wanted more guns.

So my greed outweighed the fear. I dropped into the cage, picked up the bow, and thought I was safe – I thought the cage would drop. It didn’t. I thought I could take potshots at that silly sharkenduden. But it just wouldn’t pop up to say hello.

I moved. The cage dropped. I had a sharp intake of breath and as I hit the water I whined to myself. “Why,” I asked. “Why did I say I’d do this.”

As soon as the thing moves about in the water all fear is removed. It makes a silly noise and flips about like a confused hummingbird. Such is the era, where waterbeasts do not behave themselves. A while later, you’ll see I encountered one flying in the sky all nonchalant-like.

From then on it becomes more action-orientated, and I found that made the latter half of the game much weaker. The real strength of Half-Life is when alarms are going off, you’re crawling through a vent with flashing lights on, you think of yourself as some John McClane motherfucker. You need to feel vulnerable, or scared, or claustrophobic. But the more guns you get, and the more open space you find where shootouts take place, the less you feel this way, even though ammo is so scarce I wanted to throw my mouse at a wall. The real talent’s in the levels that made you feel something. Made you feel like you were in an abusive theme park instead of a military shooter.

Part of the reason I found the playthrough so difficult was not because of the trackpad (I did intend on doing it on trackpad all the way through just to see if it could be done – IT CAN’T) but because of course now we’ve moved away from the slidiness of control, invisible box-ladders, and the need for a crouch-jump – even Mark Laidlaw, the writer of Half-Life himself, told me he regretted the long jump. Level design has changed, or, perhaps it is just that we don’t really do things exactly the same way any more. There’s very little hand holding. For example, in Blast Pit, you face a three-headed monster. Stop by a certain place in the level you’ll find the same old blue-shirted security guard (I do love him) tell you the monster is blind but it can hear things. There are grenades on the box next to him. Now if you’d had the audio off, too low, or if you plain weren’t listening, you might have really suckered yourself. But if you listen in Half-Life, the signs to read are all there. Games these days do everything but have a flashing neon light above something saying ‘GET IT HERE’. Actually, sometimes they literally have a flashing sign pointing which way to go.

Some lovely set pieces are in there: the Blast Pit hydra, the On Rails section that is a lovely piece of mine-cartesque puzzle-making – and there’s even a bit where you catapult yourself on the cart over some radioactive goop. The shark was a real highlight – and taking down the helicopter was something I bet was pretty amazing back when we didn’t do that all the time in games. PEW PEW. Exploded.

One thing I did notice in myself after a while was my willingness to waste and to suicide, created by the constant need to save after every jump or shooting section. It somewhat detracted from surprise or tension often, because I’d just barge ahead recklessly, convinced that I’d just reload if something bad happened. The autosaves are not always clear, so saving became something really necessary. In that video you’ll see a lot of really stupid things happen, such as my letting the scientist get shot just for funsies, simply because I had a save that was five seconds in the past. Now we very carefully place autosave points, and designate when they are happening very clearly, so that part of you still wants to please the level designer by traversing save point to save point. This is gamier, but I think much nicer.

There’s a sharp incline in difficulty after the helo explodes. Trip mines became the order of the day, and ninjas appear, which I took a great deal of pleasure annoying with the attack bugs you get (the ones with the magnificent idle animations). I really grinded these parts. And then I watched a speedrun through Half-Life and I lost all morale. Do not do this. They took under an hour, whilst my entire life had been sucked away by this game.

It's as if the whole planet is trying to camouflage itself

Kieron told me he didn’t finish Half-Life, and many games journalists I spoke to told me they hadn’t. Alec said it took him two years to do it. When I told Patrick Klepek this, in a bit of Giant Bomb crossover fanfic, he seemed surprised. But I am not surprised. When you get to Xen, you’re mentally tired. There was an obvious ending there, one that was necessary. It would have made sense to find the G-Man right there after you’d rocket launchered the testicle monster (testicle monster?!), G-Man reclining on a chaise longue, attempting to seduce Gordon in his rude, slightly smug way. But instead, the game goes on and on in the manner of a sort of weird, slightly off Doom. All of the signs you’ve learned to read in the previous levels – such as how to navigate, what is going to hurt you, what things are switches – even how healing works – all of these things are redone and you have to discover them. This is why pacing in games is more important than we think. Because this is where all the games journalists gave up. They got what they wanted, which was a well-told sci-fi dystopic story, in which the government turns against you, the lowly scientist. You certainly don’t want to end up with weird purple alienmagic up your arse. Like I mentioned in the previous diary entry, perhaps the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark was too much of an influence here.

Half-Life is something I’ll always regret not pushing to be put in the list for How Videogames Changed The World. I guess I was the PC gaming representative, besides Charlie. This game made my hands shake over my keyboard. The last time I felt like that was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And that game had cupboards to hide in. Half-Life did me no such courtesy. It’s raw, and it’s clever. That Apprehension chapter was perfect. I think Half-Life did change the landscape of games, along with Thief. Half-Life made character vulnerability something games could find momentum and emotional purchase on.

Happy 15th Birthday, Half-Life.

Bonus footage: In my travels I stopped off at Kieron’s house and he made fun of my trackpadding.

I also listened to a lot of Woman’s Hour whilst shooting aliens. Gordon would listen to Radio 4. He’s intellectual. And apparently a feminist.


Top comments

  1. Tinotoin says:

    It's timorous! RUUUNNNNN!
  1. Megakoresh says:

    Also Black Mesa: Source is better than original HL.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Cara really did need to turn off Blue Shift’s “high resolution” pack for this. She’s missed out on the proper Quake 1.5 engine experience, and got those ugly “high”-poly models instead.

      • Ernesto25 says:

        yeah i agree with that also , its the same reason i can’t bring myself to mod deus ex

    • Razumen says:

      Can’t say I agree with you, the Marines were botched, Helis super buggy and they cut out too much stuff. I didn’t want my Half Life to be “fan-curated”, I just wanted a modern graphical sheen applied to it. The temptation to “fix” stuff always comes up in projects like this, and in this case they should’ve just left well enough alone.

      • Mman says:

        Yeah, while the “uncut” mods fix the issues I had with it’s level cuts (and the negative effect that had on the story) the gameplay balance is still kind of fucked (in general, the Aliens are far too easy and the Marines far too hard) and certain things being hard-coded means there’s only so much that can be done about that for now. Hopefully the upcoming greenlight version will help with that.

    • Lemming says:

      Only after some config changes. The crouch-jumping in it is unbelievably annoying, unless you remove it yourself. Also, they haven’t quite mastered the visual-cues of game design: When all the doors and switches you can’t use are just as high quality and well-lit as the ones you can, it may look ‘realistic’, but it makes for a frustrating play experience. It would’ve been great for them to just pass over those parts and make the doors and switches that are just background more dilapidated/rusted and broken.

  2. RedWurm says:

    Oh god, those bloody waterbeasties, and the way they would mess with your camera when they bit you. I was bloody terrified of pretty much all swimming sections because of them, despite them appearing about twice in the game.

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      Ooh I remember how petrified I was during that level with the planks on the water. Those things could properly strike terror into hearts without even appearing.

  3. Meat Circus says:


  4. LionsPhil says:

    Oh man, that damn shark cage.


  5. Solidstate89 says:

    What a koinkidink, I have never played HL either, nor have I played HL 2. And I have no intention to ever play either.

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      … but oddly compelled to make comments on a topic about HL. So you are also in its thrall! The HL will leave no mind uncorrupted!

      Mwahahahahacoughspluttercough. Ahem.

      • Solidstate89 says:

        Given what this article (and the previous) are about, it seemed apt. I’ve also never played any of the Dooms, Quakes or Wolfensteins.

        FPSes have just never been my thing.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          Well, by the sound of it you’ve avoided most of the good ones, so no wonder you don’t like the genre. You haven’t played a recent CoD have you? Oh man, that would be the worst introduction.

          • Solidstate89 says:

            The last “dedicated” FPS game I’ve ever played was Republic Commando. I have never played any of the CoDs or Battlefields – going back to their originals.

            Like I said, I’m just not a fan of the FPS genre in general. The closes I get is First Person perspective RPGs like Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3+, etc.

    • Lemming says:

      Determined to be the contrarian, eh? Well, it’s only your loss, buddy. Hopefully, you do have some games to enjoy!

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        More than me at least. I hate all games so I don’t have anything to play. :'(

  6. Strabo says:

    I played it back when it was originally released, but never finished Xen either, and I don’t plan to do so. it’s pure sadism and bad design, I don’t have time for that.

    • Razumen says:

      There’s nothing bad about it at all, it was just different than what came before, and not what people expected, which always makes some people cry about it on the internets.

      • Lemming says:

        Yeah it’s not that bad. It’s just a bit too trippy for some, and the level design isn’t intuitive. It really is alien, which almost seems an odd criticism to level at it.

      • Convolvulus says:

        Jumping puzzles in first-person were always bad, and Xen’s long jump puzzles were a new way of making a bad thing worse.

        • PoLLeNSKi says:

          A lot of people say this about jumping in FPS…but it’s never really bothered me personally…

          Standing with me in my corner: Mirror’s Edge and Defraggers

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            I’m afraid Mirror’s Edge actually doesn’t seem to be standing anywhere near your corner, dear friend. I can’t imagine why it’s absent, it’s normally so punctual… ah


            it might be because Mirror’s Edge is not an FPS.

          • benkc says:

            Jumping puzzles in Mirror’s Edge are far different from jumping puzzles in a typical first-person game. For one, you have visible limbs. For two, you have functional limbs. (In contrast, in most first-person games, you are an invisible rectangular prism that cannot rotate or bend.)

          • Razumen says:

            Having limbs or not doesn’t change anything at all about jumping in FPS’s, Whether or not you make the jump still depends on whether or not the player’s bounding box is over top of the platform or not.

          • PoLLeNSKi says:

            lol at the pedanticism

            OK, FP not FPS… although for me FP stands for Fleshpounder…so I’m confused by this.

            Visible limbs make not a jot of difference when you’re timing the distance jumps as opposed to vertical, clambering style of jumps. You have to guesstimate when you’re coming to the end of the launch area, which like a lot of things in gaming, is a learned skill…or just obvious to some of us.

            It’s not like real life where you have to ensure the foot at the end of your real limb lands perfectly on the board in the long jump.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            The point has little to do with perspective, really, I just couldn’t resist a little wisecrack. Mirror’s Edge isn’t in this corner, because it isn’t a shooter. Mirror’s Edge is a game, by and large, about jumping. It is a game where you are expected to jump from platform to platform, it is a game where you are expecting to jump from platform to platform, and as such, it is a game built around that concept.

            Its systems, its controls, are all built around that. Jumping in Mirror’s Edge is simple, clean and intuitive. And again, you, the player, are expecting it. You’re in that mindset, and you’ve had plenty of practice.

            I’m actually not standing on one side of this argument or the other, I just have a soft spot for games of Devil’s Advocate. But yeah, that’s what I was getting at, that’s what I suspect other people are getting at.

          • PoLLeNSKi says:

            I do understand your point of view. But to take the opposing view, are you suggesting that FPS are purely about shooting and that movement is not a skill inherent in these games?

            As a long time Quake player, I consider movement to be just as much a part of FPS as shooting. Lacking in one facet of the game is just as detrimental for the gamer as the other.

            Although the movement side of FPS has been hugely gimped since COD etc (CS still had some kind of bunny jumping, immersion breaking as it was for a ‘realism’ game)…but there’s still a degree of movement skill required, even if it just requires the duck button instead of the jump button nowadays.

            I guess people who can’t jump would prefer to be playing an on rails shooter and forget they even have two hands and just want to point and click.

        • Razumen says:

          Jumping in FPS’s is simple, just look down. Barring that, it’s a relatively simple matter of knowing when to hit the button as you approach the edge-it’s not rocket science and the mechanics don’t change switching to third person.

    • Skabooga says:

      Whatever else can be said about Xen, it had some of the most alien geometry and design to ever grace gaming, and for that I’ll always be fond of it, even to the point of overlooking how finicky the platforming became in those last levels.

  7. eQuality_Ninja says:

    That’s really interesting, Cara. Perhaps it’s something that doesn’t age too well, but I’m glad you wrote about the journey!

    To me, Half Life has a special space in my heart because it was the very first game that ever compelled me to finish it. And the very first FPS game I played, because I simply didn’t get the fascination with them before it. Before HL, I was a non-committal gamer (and always got grief from my parents who saw me give up on many a game before it). HL just grabbed my by the eyeballs and sunk its teeth into my brain. It’s spatial puzzles, the way the game was told through play, and just how it all fit like a glove. It did get ridiculous in Xen, but it felt *epic* to me as a 15/16 year old. And sooo satisfying to finish.

    One memory stays with me above the rest. Oddly enough, it’s my choice of music while playing in Xen, and which will always be associated with flying around bloody ‘bollocks monster’ is from Explosions in the Sky (from 3:10, when it gets *evocative*):
    link to youtube.com

    So eerie, but so perfect.

    Weird? Certainly.
    Awesome? Yus.

    • barney says:

      Exactly: it’s compelling in a way no game before or since has been. No game has ever been so good at pulling me back in throughout.

      Was Xen ridiculous? Maybe so. Maybe everything was ridiculous back then. I wish things were a bit more ridiculous now, outside the confines of budget-strapped indies.

  8. lowprices says:

    You played it with a MOUSE?! How disappointing. I was so enjoying the Trackpad Adventures of Clumsy Gordon.

    On a more serious note, I think there should be more features where iconic games are played by people who didn’t play them first time out. It’s easy to lose sight of a games’ actual merits and flaws when they were totemic for you. It’s interesting to read the judgement of someone who doesn’t have that baggage.

  9. barney says:

    It’s very strange you mention the exhaustion of Half-Life — the fact you spoke to enthusiasts who lost the will to finish it. I’m terrible at finishing games generally. Dishonoured, Skyrim, Whitcher 2: all the characterful games I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by and contemplated over the past few years… Remain unfinished.

    Despite my fascination and enthusiasm for video games, I don’t devote half as much time to them as seems to be the norm — a few hours on the weekend, if it’s quiet. But after a while the energy and time sacrifice needed to get back into the immersion becomes too great: I know the universe, I’ve spent over 10 hours being thoroughly engrossed in it, and then when I think “I’ve got 2 hours spare”, it seems too forced for me to delve back in.

    The Half Life series never did this to me. Half Life 1 most of all just kept me fascinated all the way through. The challenges, the wonderment, the shifting scale and nature of the adventure… There was always wonder to go back to. Yes, the Xen world got incredibly challenging — but it was so otherworldly, such a fresh and in-your-face step change, that it was more so invigorating.

    And that’s something I find missing the vast majority of the time. The coda to too many games is an increased difficulty, bigger setpieces, a culmination to a story you’ve been paying attention to from the beginning. And to a large degree, this puts me to sleep. I’d rather not get that closure — let me keep occasionally idly dreaming about the universe I’ve taken part in. This wasn’t at all the case for Half Life 1. It kept genuine wonderment throughout.

    Afterthought: As much as it’s held up as an omen of the end of id Software’s domination of mindless storyless shootybang, in hindsight I think people saw too much of a dichotomy in “Doom & Quake just had you running around shooting shit while Half Life had scripted sequences and engaging voice-acted NPCs”: Half Life’s story was completely untelegraphed. It wasn’t a sequence of imperative missions, a tree of intriguing choices, and there was certainly no role-playing. In those aspects, it’s very similar to the old id games and very different to all the contrived, dull, over-written “emotionally connect with the player” games that have drowned the big game industry since. What about the quiet, understated, natural wonderment guys. What about it.

    • Ernesto25 says:

      This it made me role play and ill always defend xen as it felt a truly alien place that was hard to get through which what an alien invasion planet should feel like to me .

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      Bang on. One thing I never really felt in HL was the sense of slogging it out (even Dishonoured’s last few levels felt one or two too many). It set the pace so beautifully and has never been beaten since. Yes, I’m looking at you COD.

      And the alien world was so totally alien – not something we get to see in any medium.

  10. symuun says:

    Wait. You can shoot down that helicopter? Without a rocket launcher?

    How did I never realise that in fifteen years of playing this game?

    • ViktorBerg says:

      With the Tau Cannon, yes. A full charge and a half charge should do it in on Hard, maybe 2 full charges at most.

  11. Shadowcat says:

    Xen is basically fine. It gets an absolutely absurd amount of hate for no good reason. It’s not the best part of the game, but it’s not as if it’s that much worse than the rest of it.

    • Razumen says:

      I’d argue it needed the Zen levels. It would’ve been dissapointing if the game ends just as Gordon jumped through the teleport. The Zen levels highlighted the weirdness of the alien world and showed how far Gordon was willing to go to defend Earth. But the most important part was that it was both long and challenging enough that it was really satisfying when you actually beat the final boss, you were ready for the game to end by that time.

    • Grape Flavor says:

      As someone who had no problem with Xen and only discovered after the fact that people hated it, I have to say I downright resent the way many gamers go apeshit every time a game tries including something new and unexpected and maybe it isn’t 100% polished. We complain about samey-ness and lack of creativity and then we turn around and punish developers every time they don’t deliver the exact same dry predictable man shooting in the same dry predictable environments throughout the entire course of their game.

      It’s the exact same thing with the Trigens in Far Cry. It was fine. In fact it was more than fine, it was needed. People should stop whining before a developer actually hears them and decides to throw out everything interesting from their next game because some gamers just can’t handle a wrench being thrown in the works from time to time.

      Perhaps there’s just a big subset of manshooter players who simply hate shooting monsters and only ever want to shoot men throughout the entirety of these games. They say it’s less “tactical”, well of course you silly that’s the point. It’s a monster, it doesn’t give a shit about flanking or suppressive fire. It’s going to fly at you and chew your face off. That’s the whole idea, it’s meant to throw you off your game and make you tense, take away your sense of predictability and control. It doesn’t care about your silly little Gentlemen’s Rules of Combat. The developer is intentionally throwing the chess pieces in your face.

      Imagine how boring and repetitive shooters would be if developers always listened to all those dullards who complain and moan every single time an FPS has monsters, or a stealth section, or a vehicle section, or a platforming section, or or indeed anything whatsoever besides walking around shooting men the same way through the entire 15 hours. People like that are why FPS games are stuck in the rut that they are these days.

  12. Mman says:

    It’s interesting to see someone playing it for the first time noticing the shift in style in the latter half of the game, in context, the way it does the shift is part of what makes the game so great for me (it helps that I consider Surface Tension the peak and possibly the best section of an FPS ever). Here’s a post I made elsewhere on it’s fifteenth anniversary that goes into that more:

    “I could rave about aspects of the game, but instead I want focus on a narrative element that gets overlooked in complaints about things like Gordon being mute. Half-Life 1’s Gordon has a strong character arc conveyed purely through gameplay.

    The first half of the game simply has Gordon being a survivor; set-pieces might be large in impact but are relatively small in scale (stuff like avoiding collapsing scenery or getting a giant monster out the way). Residue processing is the turning point. It’s Gordon’s lowest point, and the gameplay of that chapter is frustrating for a lot of people because it’s supposed to be; Gordon is PISSED and that is projected on the player by the gameplay of the chapter (there’s even a Star Wars reference at the start of the chapter to support this arc being intentional). It’s also the point where Gordon starts getting built up into a hero rather than merely being a survivor. The chapters that follow immediately ramp things up and are where the crazy action movie-type set-pieces and world-saving story begin to happen, which is intentional as Gordon is finally on the offensive rather than just trying to survive.

    I’d argue that a big reason Xen is weaker is simply because that character arc drove a lot of the set-pieces, and there isn’t really anywhere else for Gordon to go when he’s finished his transition into a world-saving hero. Realising this actually increased my understanding of what HL2 did; taking the focus off Gordon and on to other characters makes sense as not much else can be done (based on the implied characterisation, even giving him a voice would just make him a generic hero type).”

  13. Sorbicol says:

    Another one here who never quite got got the end of the xen levels – well, actually I think I did but that final boss just finished me off and I never felt the need to return. Seminal game to be sure but HL2 was so much better, and has aged a lot better too.

  14. Cara Ellison says:

    If anyone wants a fabulous time here is the misandry music, it’s in the public domain: link to ia600202.us.archive.org

  15. MikoSquiz says:

    The front half of the game is a finely constructed, immersive automated roller coaster ride that’s very impressive as long as you’re playing it for the first time (and it’s still the 1990s). The back half is just not very good.

    • Lemming says:

      I like the second half, but for different reasons, and I totally get why it changes the way it does, because the story and the stakes, must escalate. It’s a slave to narrative, and I totally get that. It’s like Alien and Aliens back-to-back. Sure it’s different, but there’s only so far you can go before things become predictable and the tension naturally dissipates. Half-Life 2 changed things somewhat by mixing those chapters up, rather than being clearly divided into two halves.

      I guess if you don’t like the second half of Half-Life, you will probably hate Opposing Force as well, which I think is Gearbox’s finest hour.

      • Mman says:

        If the “second half” is Residual Processing onwards then it contains my favourite parts of the game by far. Although I think things start going downhill somewhere around the Lambda Core section.

  16. Lemming says:

    Well done Cara! I’m curious, what did you think of the part where you’re led like a mouse to a piece of cheese into a room and knocked out and left in a compressor with just a crowbar again?

    • Cara Ellison says:

      Excellent question. I thought it was great! I mean, lots of FPSs have used that since (I think), but yeah that bit just after the ninjas where you are knocked out made me think about the gun thing a lot more – and how they sort of almost solved it for a while by taking them all away, and then you felt weak again. Really great design. And such a surprise!

      • Matt_W says:

        Tomb Raider used this story mechanic two years before HL was released. I’m not sure if that was the first use ever, but when I played through HL, I distinctly remember thinking: “This again?”

        • Cara Ellison says:

          I agree that TR used it, but I think the first person perspective really made much more of an impact when you black out, and then hear the soldiers talking, and then you wake to no weapons. I think narratively it was more powerful for me.

        • Convolvulus says:

          I think Duke Nukem 3D did it before Tomb Raider.

      • Ahkey says:

        I love the re-visitation and subversion of this trope in HL2 when the confiscation field has you completely immobilised and starts vaporises all of your weapons but – when it gets to the gravity gun – has no idea what the hell to make of it and scores a complete own goal by not only shorting itself out, but supercharging the gun into the most powerful weapon in the game. That whole level is such a power trip.

        Btw, great work on How Videogames Changed the World, Cara!

  17. Erithtotl says:

    I think the Xen levels are routinely sited as the weakest part of Half Life. It just sort of takes you out of the context of the whole rest of the game. But in the context of the overall Half Life saga I think they are useful in impressing the sheer alien-ness of the enemy.

    While the 2nd half of the game does become more pure action, lets also remember how innovative and exciting it was the first time you faced the soldiers. They worked as teams, flanked, lobbed grenades to cover their approach, etc. It might have been semi scripted (I think the levels are decorated with markers that they use to do their maneuvers) but it was a massive leap over the swarming drones of games like Quake and Wolfenstein. Creating that same AI ‘feel’ has been the holy grail of shooters since.

    I assume the author has played Half Life 2? That’s not clear though admittedly I skimmed the first article. The amazing thing about Half Life is its one of the most important PC games of all time, and 2 topped it significantly.

    • Ernesto25 says:

      Yeah you summed up why i like xen and why i don’t want bm:s to change them too much, i think i would have been dissapointed in a quake 4 style alien planet. Some of it was annoying and harsh espeicaly the ammo but then again i’m a one man army going into xen. the Xen chapter helps me more appreciate the threat of the combine in the later half life games.

  18. Lambchops says:

    Hey Cara, you should totally play Opposing Force next; it’s a really good game and although it recycles some ideas (there’s a level that’s basically the Blast Pit all over again) it’s also exceptionally well crafted and arguably better paced as it doesn’t lose track at the end (I think people do overstate their hatred for Xen, partially because the rest of the game sets such a high standard. It’s pretty mediocre but it isn’t “the worst thing ever TM”).

    Still hoping for Shephard to return, though that of course requires more Half Life! Loved that they stuck with the ordinary bloke naming convention, good old Adrian!

  19. kyrieee says:

    Stealth KG appearance, I approve

    • Skabooga says:

      I could watch hours of Cara and Kieron bickering while playing through various video games. Somebody make this happen more!

  20. HeroJez says:

    A trackpad. Cute! ^_^

  21. Blue_Lemming says:

    Oh Ellison.. remember the rules of 1st person shooters.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      It’s weird though – KG says that I shouldn’t be using the shotgun – and in this era that’s true, there’s much more of an adherence to range and more sophisticated hitboxes – but I actually learned through practice that HL shotguns have a MASSIVE range, way longer than they should. And so you really can take down a monster with one shot from a yard away. So really KG is just being a fuddy duddy.

      • Shooop says:

        That’s actually how shotguns behave in reality. If they worked like they did in 99% of video games, no one would ever use them because they’d be completely useless.

        Gimped shotguns are even one of my personal peeves about most video games. I applaud Valve for getting them right in the Half-Life games, but they screwed them up in Left 4 Dead.

      • Blue_Lemming says:

        Discrete apologies for the last name useage, i’ve found its the only way to address a member of your clan.

        Guns weren’t HL’s crowning glory anyhow, all the set/scripted pieces are what makes it a game changer, before that we were just told to “go shoot stuff” till we hit a loading screen. There were no survivors to whatever we’d been dropped in to, just waves of monsters that you could mod to have the voice of Terry Thomas.

      • The Random One says:

        Blood is only two years newer than HL and its shotgun is essentially an all-purpose gun. But GoldenEye 64 came out between the two and I don’t remember what it shotgun was like, only that it looked totes weird. In summary, shotgun.

  22. Jonfon says:

    Weirdly, there’s a statue to Gonad the Testicle-spider outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I went with my wife and 2 kids there was an artificial fog blowing across the scene as well, which made it doubly eerie.

    My 2 year old thought it was awesome.

  23. Shooop says:

    I’ve never played the original Half-Life either, and I’m not sure if I should even at this point.

    Because I already know all the game’s tricks – the mundane waiting on the train and walking through the labs to the chamber to build the thought of “What could go wrong here?” and the chaos that ensues. I already can tell what’ll happen in it because playing everything else that followed has pretty much copy and pasted the same things. And if the shooting is anything like the second, I’m already not a fan because that was the most laborious and weakest part of the game. The story and hidden metaphors were all that kept me playing that one.

    It did mark a revolution no doubt and it was THE thing at its time, but did it really age that well?

    • Ernesto25 says:

      Yes it did i think BM:s showed that with a bit of dialogue at the begining. Of course its subjective but it really was darker than the 1st and alot of people enjoyed the train just ;like the start of city 17. I could go on but it really has aged well comapred to some other “classic ” fps i could mention but won’t.

      • Shooop says:

        I’m willing to give Black Messa a spin, but I can’t see myself doing the original.

        The shooting in BM any good or did they copy/paste Half-Life 2’s wonky mechanics for it?

        • Mman says:

          Black Mesa messes up the original combat pretty badly as it is, and unless you install mods that re-add them certain cut levels harm the storytelling a lot.

          Maybe the upcoming greenlight release will fix some of this though.

          • Shooop says:

            What about Half-Life Source then?

          • Mman says:

            Source isn’t worth it; the Source visual changes are very minor and mostly just harm the coherence of the visuals. It also has major issues like completely messing up the way sounds and effects like reverb work in the game (which lowers the atmosphere of some parts a lot). The physics are also mostly just awkward and make some parts harder than they are supposed to be.

        • Razumen says:

          The original is still beter in my opinion, the only thing BM really has going for it is the improved graphics, most everything else is subpar compared to the original – they screwed up the pacing, balance, and changed too much, the marines in particular neithe act nor look like HL1 marines at all.

    • Mman says:

      Half-Life 1 has better combat than HL2 and much more enemy variety. Also, most of the games that copied moments do it nowhere near as well or as confidently (same with HL2 actually!)

    • Shooop says:

      Well, apparently I have to actually play the original now. Curse you Ernesto and Mman, that’s another game on my backlog.

  24. wodin says:

    Cara..Freja has been waiting for a reply anychance you can email her? I think she thinks you’ve changed your mind. Thanks

  25. drewski says:

    I get game exhaustion in pretty much every game I play, almost no matter how much I’m enjoying it. I am curious as to why. I mean, I definitely got it in Half Life, but then, that’s pretty standard because the jumping puzzles are such nonsense.

    But I mean I get tired of games that are 5 hours long by about the 3 hour mark.

  26. Snargelfargen says:

    “We’re supposed to be polite and have manners…”
    *shoots alien in the face*


    I always feel a bit odd listening to podcasts while playing fps games but they suit the mindless action really well! Borderlands and Dan Carlins’ Hardcore History is a great combo.

  27. Foosnark says:

    Xen was neat for atmosphere, but it and the jumping puzzle hell right before it, and the boss battle, were all annoying.

    I really liked the atmosphere of Black Mesa, and the occasional tantalizing parts where you’ve made it outside and it seems like freedom might be around the next corner. Xen was kind of like the end of Akira or Black Hole or any number of other movies where the writers gave up and threw weird at you for some random amount of time.

  28. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I have to confess, I did not completely hate Xen. I thought it was a bit boring, but not so terrible that I did not want to go on.

  29. DantronLesotho says:


  30. jalf says:

    Huh, I think you really nailed how I felt about the Xen part. It wasn’t that I actively *disliked* that part of the game, and I certainly didn’t hate it like some people did/do.

    It just seemed so unnecessary and pointless. It just wasn’t clear what purpose it served, other than extending a game that really was already long enough. It had been a really fun ride up until that point, and they *could* have ended it there with nothing to be ashamed of.

  31. Tinotoin says:

    It’s timorous! RUUUNNNNN!

  32. djbriandamage says:

    “Now we very carefully place autosave points, and designate when they are happening very clearly, so that part of you still wants to please the level designer by traversing save point to save point.”

    My recollection is that it was Half Life 2 that first got it right. That one game completely broke my lifelong compulsion to whack F5.

  33. Contrafibularity says:

    Awesome now you’ve made to want to replay it again.

  34. Yosharian says:

    So you think the game is mostly average with moments of brilliance, and you hated Xen. How disappointing.

  35. ffordesoon says:

    I didn’t hate Xen, but the last boss was pretty darn awful.

  36. Spacewalk says:

    That first Icthyosaur was a little disappointing. I was expecting it to leap out of the water and eat me like it did to the scientist but he stayed safe in its little underwater world. The second one thought it was safe too until I killed it with grenades and blind firing my pistol.

  37. yensid says:

    I played through to the end, which is something I rarely do. Xen definitely wasn’t as good, but I didn’t mind it, I was loving the game so much (still) that I didn’t want it to go away.

    Though, in all honesty, as awesome and ground breaking as I thought the game was at the time, I think what truly made it a game changer in the world of video games was the emphasis they put on supporting modding it. While you could do some modding of other games (anyone else remember Night Hunters on Quake?), nothing compared to being able to, for free, play Counter Strike (which is still one of the top competitive games), Team Fortress, Natural Selection, etc. for many years after.

  38. engion3 says:

    Using a trackpad has to be one of the most exhausting activities in the world. I almost failed college until I got a little wireless mouse, well not really, but you can imagine.

  39. Apocalypse says:

    But I am not surprised. When you get to Xen, you’re mentally tired. There was an obvious ending there, one that was necessary.

    Jup, thats it. On my original playthrough I stopped playing in the first Xen level for a few months, but man, Xen was for me so much fun AFTER I picked that old save up again. Xen would have been the perfect episode 1 for half-life 1 and at the same time Gearbox’s opposing forces was a splendid expansion as well.

    Which brings to my mind: Play Opposing Forces too!

  40. Lemming says:

    Opposing Force would be a good experience while HL1 is still fresh in the mind. It even does things an expansion hadn’t done before (as far as I’m aware), by having you play parallel to the goings on with Freeman.

  41. Sidewinder says:

    “ammo is so scarce I wanted to throw my mouse at a wall”

    All in favor of making Cara play through System Shock 2?

  42. crinkles esq. says:

    Xen, gods yes. I had tried to shut out those hours leeched away from my existence. I think for me it was not just the mental tiredness or HL massively overstaying its welcome, but the lack of coherent story past that point.

    Cara, could I hire you to regale me with videogame tales in your pleasant speaking voice while I drift asleep? The way you say “water” is like a nice cup of tea.

  43. buzzmong says:

    I quite liked Xen and it was very different and very alien, but I think it was too long. It should have ended after Gonarch (who’s just a massive headcrab after all).

    By the time you get to Nihilanth, I found Xen getting stale. Although that’s an interesting boss fight in itself.

  44. pagad says:

    I have completed Half-Life with a touchpad.

    If you train your ring finger to look and your index finger to shoot, it’s surprisingly easy.

  45. TiagoTiago says:

    Really? The platforming is among my favorite things in Half-Life.

    Sure there are some glitches here and there, but, overall, once you get used to the mechanics it starts feel pretty natural.